Putin’s Approval Rating Reaches Record High in Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin smiles while speaking with journalists in Itamaraty Palace in Brazilia, early on July 17, 2014. Alexei Nikolsky—AFP/Getty Images

Russians are also satisfied with their freedom, military and elections

Amid the conflict in Ukraine and growing discord with European neighbors and Western countries, Vladimir Putin’s approval rating among Russians has climbed to its highest level in years, according to a new Gallup poll.

Eighty-three percent of Russians approve of the job Russia’s president is doing. This ties his top rating in 2008 and marks a 29 percentage point increase from Putin’s rating in 2013.

For the first time since 2008, a majority of Russians say their country’s leadership is moving them in the right direction. In addition, 78% have confidence in their military, 64% in their national government, and 39% say that they are confident in the honesty of Russian elections.

But Russians’ positivity isn’t limited to their government. A record high of 65% of Russians said they were satisfied with their freedom in 2014. A significant group–35 %–also said they thought economic conditions were improving.

While Russians are satisfied with their own government, the poll showed they are increasingly turning away from Western countries. Both U.S. and European Union leadership had single digit approval ratings. One country Russians do approve of is China. The poll showed Russians’ approval for China soared this year to a record 42%. In recent months, the two countries have shown close economic ties, signing a $400 billion gas deal this spring.

TIME Ukraine

U.S. Warned Of Unsafe Airspace Over Crimea, But Not Where MH17 Crashed

An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014.
An armed pro-Russian separatist stands at a site of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash in the settlement of Grabovo in the Donetsk region, July 17, 2014. Maxim Zmeyev—Reuters

The Federal Aviation Administration warned U.S. air carriers not to fly in a region about 200 miles away from where Malaysian crash occurred in Ukraine.

Earlier this year the Federal Aviation Administration banned American air carriers from flying over part of the disputed area between Russia and Ukraine over safety concerns, but the area where Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed on Thursday was not included in this restricted airspace.

The agency warned American aircraft on April 25 against flying over the Crimean peninsula and the surrounding waters after Russia, which had moved to annex the territory, claimed control over that airspace.

“In the FAA’s view, the potential for civil aircraft to receive confusing and conflicting air traffic control instructions from both Ukrainian and Russian ATS providers while operating in the portion of the Simferopol (UKFV) FIR covered by this SFAR is unsafe and presents a potential hazard to civil flight operations in the disputed airspace,” the agency wrote. “In addition, political and military tension between Ukraine and the Russian Federation remains high, and compliance with air traffic control instructions issued by the authorities of one country could result in a civil aircraft being misidentified as a threat and intercepted or otherwise engaged by air defense forces of the other country.”

But the Donetsk region where Flight 17 reportedly crashed is roughly 200 miles northeast from the restricted zone. The map below was included in the FAA advisory.



TIME russia

Ukraine Rebels Call Putin a Coward After Russian Inaction

President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, July 4.
President Vladimir Putin in Kremlin, July 4. Alexei Nikolsky—Itar-Tasss/ZumaPress

Early promises of help from Russia go unfulfilled

The rebel commander in eastern Ukraine was sure Russia’s tanks would soon come grinding over the border to his rescue. He even had an idea of what would provoke the invasion—“130 corpses,” he told TIME. “When they see that on Russian TV, they’ll come and help us.”

That was in the middle of April, and since then the body count in eastern Ukraine has far surpassed that figure. Even the commander himself, who went by the nickname Romashka, is now among the dead, having been shot by a Ukrainian sniper in his stronghold of Slavyansk at the beginning of May. No Russian troops ever came to help him.

For the Ukrainian government that has been a saving grace, allowing its army to force the pro-Russian militants into retreat over the weekend, killing scores of them in the process. But for Russian President Vladimir Putin, this turn in the conflict presents a painful dilemma. His pledges of support for the separatists now seem like false promises to the rebel leaders—and to their many supporters in Russia—and they have begun openly accusing Putin of cowardice and betrayal. The patriotic spell that he cast on his electorate with the annexation of Crimea in March now seems to have lifted, and his sky-high approval ratings are now likely to come down to earth.

The change in tone is already evident on Russia’s propaganda channels, which still depict the rebel fighters as heroes and martyrs—but not a part of any Russian war. “No one is talking about sending in troops anymore. That conversation is over,” says Mikhail Leontiev, one of the leading spin doctors on state-controlled TV. “Now the people need to understand that if Russia falls into this military trap, it will be worst of all for the people of eastern Ukraine, even for the fighters among them,” he tells TIME.

The fighters would beg to differ. In endless missives to the Russian leadership over the past few months, they have asked with growing anger and desperation for the Kremlin to send in troops or at least provide them with advanced weaponry. “We don’t have the means to fight so many tanks,” Igor Girkin, the rebel commander in eastern Ukraine who goes by the nom de guerre Igor Strelkov, said in a video appeal to Moscow on June 19. “I’m still hoping that Moscow has enough shame to take some kind of measures.”

But instead of offering much material assistance, Putin’s allies seem to have launched a slander campaign against Girkin and his men, even accusing them of “crying like women” about a lack of firepower before abandoning the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk this weekend. “He gave up the city without any pressure from the Ukrainian side,” Sergei Kurginyan, another prominent Kremlin propagandist, said in a video denunciation of the rebels. “No one was advancing against him.”

This claim seemed out of sync with the fighting on the ground. For days before the rebels fled Slavyansk on July 5 the Ukrainian army had besieged them, bombarding their positions with heavy artillery and cutting off supplies of food, electricity and water. Indeed, in the first week of June, Kurginyan had himself campaigned for Russia to send military contractors to assist Girkin and his men.

But that was before Putin made his sudden turn toward the role of a peacemaker in Ukraine. His reasons were pragmatic. Western sanctions had already broken financial ties—and frozen bank accounts—that Kremlin elites had spent years nurturing. The next round of sanctions would likely have sent Russia’s economy into a recession, putting at risk the state programs and paychecks that feed Putin’s loyal bureaucracy. A full-scale invasion would also risk a military quagmire that would further drain the Russian budget, as Ukraine’s army has mustered a force impressive enough to put up a serious fight. So in late June, Putin asked his legislature to withdraw his permission for the use of military force in Ukraine, and he began calling for peace talks in league with Western mediators.

The rebels were not the only ones to see this as a sign of duplicity. Russian nationalists have begun to turn on him as well, posting diatribes and even music videos that seek to goad Putin into war, juxtaposing his pledges to “defend the Russian world” with images of bombed-out villages and Russian corpses in Ukraine. “We gave them hope,” Alexander Dugin, one of the leading nationalist ideologues in Russia, said during a television appearance last week. “When we said we’re a united Russian civilization, this didn’t just come from a few patriotic forces. It came from the President!”

And it will not be easy for Putin to back away from those promises. A nationwide poll taken at the end of June suggested that 40% of Russians supported military intervention in Ukraine, up from 31% only a month earlier. This segment of society is largely made up of young, poor and undereducated nationalists, as well as elderly people nostalgic for the glory of the Soviet Union, according to Lev Gudkov, the director of the Levada Center, the independent polling agency that conducted those surveys. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, the euphoria among these parts of the electorate helped push Putin’s approval ratings toward record highs of over 80% “The revival of those strong imperialist feelings, playing on the idea of a fallen nation rising up, all of that ensured the sudden upswing in support for Putin,” Gudkov said. “But I don’t think that can last, probably not even past this fall.”

The all-time peak in Putin’s popularity, Gudkov points out, came right after the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, when his approval ratings jumped to 88% before quickly getting dragged down by the effects of the global financial crisis. By the spring of 2009, they were down to 55%—propped up by what Gudkov calls the apathetic mass of civil servants and state dependents who support Putin “because there is not other choice.”

That slump is now likely to recur. The Russian economy is once again stagnating, this time from the effects of the Western sanctions, and there are already signs that consumers are suffering from the resulting slump in the value of the ruble. New car sales, for instance, fell by a remarkable 17% last month, and the estimated cost of developing Crimea—roughly $18 billion—will put further strain on the federal budget. Such bread-and-butter problems are not enough to dissuade the jingoist minority in Russia, and they are certainly not much help to rebels fighting and dying in eastern Ukraine.

But as the last few weeks have shown, Putin is not the Napoleon many of them believed him to be.


TIME Opinion

Why Russia Won’t Catch Up in the Space Race

Goin' nowhere: Smiles take you farther than frowns
Goin' nowhere: Smiles take you farther than frowns Bill Ingalls/NASA; Getty Images

It takes a lot of things to run a successful space program, but petulance, anger and impulsiveness are not among them. That's a lesson Vladimir Putin has to learn.

It’s a hard fact of exploratory history that angry people don’t achieve much in space. You have to be patient when you design your rockets, steely-eyed when you launch them and utterly unflappable when you actually get where you’re going.

That stay-poised doctrine was conspicuously at work in the past few days, as two different space projects played out in two different parts of the world with two very different results. On Friday, Russia scrapped the launch of its new Angara rocket—a booster that has been in development since 1994 and has gone pretty much nowhere. Vladimir Putin was personally involved both in overseeing the launch and in authorizing the stand-down—a line of command that would seem awfully strange if it were President Obama on the horn with Cape Canaveral telling the pad engineers what they can launch and when they can launch it.

On Saturday, meantime, NASA successfully tested its Low Density Supersonic Decelerator, a nifty piece of engineering that the space agency admittedly overhyped as a “flying saucer,” but that does kind of look like one and is actually a prototype of a new landing system for spacecraft going to Mars—a place NASA has been visiting with greater and greater frequency of late.

The U.S. and Russia were once the Castor and Pollux of space travel, cosmic twins that dazzled the world with their serial triumphs in the 1960s and ’70s, but they’ve gone in different directions since. America’s manned space program has been frustratingly adrift since the end of the Apollo era, but the shuttles did fly successfully 133 times (and failed disastrously twice) and new crewed spacecraft are in development. The unmanned program, meantime, has been a glorious success, with robot craft ranging across the solar system, to planets, moons, comets and asteroids—and one ship even exiting the solar system altogether.

And Russia? Not so much. The collapse of communism, the loss of Kazakhstan—which put the Baikonaur Cosmodrome, Russia’s Cape Canaveral, in an entirely different country—and hard economic times made space an unaffordable luxury. But now Russia is grimly trying to claw its way back—and the grimness is a problem.

The Angara launch was supposed to take place from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwest Russia, a new installation intended to re-centralize the space program, getting it out of Kazakhstan and back on home soil. It’s of a piece with a range of Russia’s actions lately, which have, much like the Angara, been more fizzle than flight.

Putin’s Crimean land grab seemed bold if larcenous for a moment, but the blowback has been severe and he’s already backing down from further actions, with his ambitions for a renewed Russian empire limited—for the moment at least—to a single Black Sea island with less square mileage than Massachusetts. His long dreamed-of economic union—announced with enormous fanfare in early June and intended to serve as a counterweight to the 28-member EU—turned out to be nothing more than a table for three, shared with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Ukraine initially RSVP’ed yes, but that was one revolution and one Russian invasion ago, and the new government is once again tilting west.

And so it will probably go with Russia in space. The original space race was no less political than anything Russia is doing today, but both the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were operating from positions of strength, projecting their competing power over a sprawling region of client states and taking the duel to the cosmic high ground. Russia today—with Putin calling the shots on when a booster should be launched and the government issuing petulant threats to quit flying American astronauts to the International Space Station—is acting neither strong nor confident.

It is, instead, joining the long list of states that have dreamed of space but sought to power themselves more with rage than rocket fuel. And consider how far they’ve gotten. North Korea? Pathetic. Iran? Please. China? They’re doing great things now, but that only started when they climbed down from their revolutionary zeal and started focusing on the engineering and physics instead of the ideology and slogans.

Russia may once again become the cosmic pioneer it was—and space fans of good will are rooting for that. With the Cold War over, it matters less whether the first flag on Mars or the next one on the moon is the stars and stripes or the Russian tri-color or even the Chinese stars. As long as a human being is planting it, that will be good enough. So the door is always open, Russia. But please, leave the nasty outside before you come in.

TIME Ukraine

Exclusive: Ukraine’s President Seeks ‘Understanding’ With Russia

Merkel Meets With New Ukrainian President Poroshenko
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko Carsten Koall—Getty Images

In his first interview as President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko tells TIME that he has no choice but to keep Russia at the negotiating table, as no country is prepared to guarantee his country's security from further attack

Ukraine’s new President Petro Poroshenko wants to see Russia punished for what he calls the “tragedy” that befell his country this year. But even as Russia has annexed one region of Ukraine and encouraged a violent rebellion in two others, Ukraine does not have the option of breaking off ties with the Kremlin, Poroshenko told TIME in his first interview since taking office. His government has no choice but to seek “an understanding” with Russia, he says, even if for no other reason than the hard reality of Ukraine’s geography.

“Maybe some Ukrainians would like to have Sweden or Canada for a neighbor, but we have Russia,” he said on Monday inside the Presidential Administration Building in Kiev, fidgeting with a set of rosary beads throughout the interview. “So we can’t talk about a firm sense of security without a dialogue and an understanding with Russia.” That is why Poroshenko spent the first full day of his tenure on Sunday in marathon talks with the Russian ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov. Their positions remain miles apart, at best leaving Poroshenko room for “cautious optimism” for restoring civil relations with Russia, he said.

But whatever progress they will make toward a cease-fire between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian rebels in the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, Poroshenko has no intention of making nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “To be honest, I’m not very interested in what Citizen Putin thinks of my state,” he said. If the Russian leader doubts Ukraine’s right to exist within its current borders, the best way to convince him otherwise is to build a powerful army and a thriving economy, Poroshenko said. “No one would allow himself to doubt the existence of small countries like Singapore,” the Ukrainian President said, “because when a country is strong, effective, comfortable, monolithic, such doubts would never enter anyone’s minds.”

Achieving that will require support from the West, he told TIME, not least of all the kind of military aid that he has been requesting. “We’re talking about assistance that will be able to stop this aggression” from Russia, he said of his discussions last week and this weekend with U.S. and European leaders. “The help can take all kinds of forms, from intelligence to military technology, from blocking our airspace to enforcing a maritime blockade” in case of attack.

Poroshenko said he discussed these kinds of support last week with U.S. President Barack Obama, and brought it up again with Vice President Joe Biden, who attended Poroshenko’s inauguration on Saturday. But no Western nation has agreed to provide any security guarantees to Ukraine, nor have they made any firm pledges to renew the so-called Budapest Memorandum, the 1994 agreement between the U.S., Russia and the U.K. that was supposed to guarantee Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

With the annexation of Crimea in March, Russia violated that agreement, and Poroshenko has since become convinced that even the U.N. Security Council is no longer capable of preventing conflict between major powers. “When one of the veto-holding members of the U.N. Security Council has in effect become an aggressor, that shows that the old system isn’t working,” he said. This argument came up in his talks with Western leaders last weekend in France, and he said they agreed “without question” about the need for the “global security architecture” to be revised. “The struggle for Crimea is a struggle to prevent such precedents from repeating themselves in the future,” he said. “We can’t allow unpunished aggression.”

But punishing Russia is not an option for Poroshenko at this point. The best he can do is to build a military that can prevent a future Russian attack and, at the same time, stay at the negotiating table with the country he calls an aggressor. His goals are modest. Apart from stopping the bloodshed in eastern Ukraine, he wants Russia to offer a new “model of behavior, a model of guarantees” that would restore a sense of stability. So far, he doesn’t have anything close.

TIME russia

Global Perceptions of Putin’s Russia Have Become Increasingly Negative

Russian President Vladimir Putin Holds Council Meeting For National Children's Strategy
Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during a meeting of the Coordination Council on Implementing the National Children's Strategy for 2012-2014, in the Kremlin on May 27, 2014. Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

Many people are just not that fond of Russia anymore, according to a BBC survey published this week

Russia under President Vladimir Putin’s iron-fisted rule is losing fans across the world at a precipitous rate, according to a new study commissioned by the BBC World Service from GlobeScan and the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA).

Feelings toward Moscow have increasingly soured in 13 of the 24 countries surveyed in 2014 and are the most negative since the poll was first conducted nine years ago.

“Views of Russia have continued to deteriorate strongly over the past year,” the BBC said in a statement. “In the 20 tracking countries surveyed both in 2013 and 2014, negative ratings have jumped four points to 45%.”

Views of Russia were most unfavorable in Europe, where the proportion of French and Germans holding negative views of the country increased by 6 points to 69% and 67%, respectively. In the U.K., 64% of those polled had negative feelings toward Russia — a 7% increase.

An equal percentage of Americans polled held negative feelings about Russia, representing a 5-point increase in the past year.

Pollsters cited Putin’s increasingly antagonistic behavior on the global stage as the likely stimulant responsible for the increase.

PIPA director Steven Kull said the polling period was one “during which Putin had pressed Ukraine to not move toward the E.U., and when the first riots took place in the streets of Kiev.”

However, at least six of the countries surveyed reported increasingly positive attitudes toward Russia.

China, home to roughly 20% of the global population, holds largely favorable views of its neighbor to the north. Approximately 55% of Chinese surveyed expressed positive perceptions of Russia — an 11-point increase.

TIME russia

We’re Not Impressed With Your Space Tantrum, Mr. Putin

The International Space Station: Putin won't come to play anymore
The International Space Station: Putin won't come to play anymore NASA

An open letter to the Russian leader as his deputy prime minister threatens to ground American astronauts and military satellites

Dear Vladimir,

So you’re not having enough problems digesting Crimea, that half-bankrupt hairball you swallowed because it was there and looked tasty but now it won’t go down and everyone in the world is mad at you? Now you want to pick a fight in space too?

That’s how it seems, at least, after your Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin announced a number of tit-for-tat sanctions against the U.S. today—specifically among them, targeting our countries’ once-cozy collaboration on the International Space Station. According to Rogy, you’ll quit selling us seats on your Soyuz booster—which, since the grounding of the shuttle, is American astronauts’ only way into space—and use the station on your own, despite the fact that it was largely a NASA construction project. What’s more, you’ll no longer sell us the NK-33 and RD-180 engines we currently buy from you for our Atlas V boosters, at least for any launches of military satellites.

Ooh, smack! Now put down your lightsaber young Skywalker. Here’s why we’re not impressed:

First of all, you’ve conveniently scheduled the shutdown of your Soyuz taxi service for 2020, or four years before we plan to abandon the ISS and drop it in the drink anyway. Why wait until then? Could it be the cool $76 million we pay you per seat—cash that an oil-drunk economy like yours needs when fossil fuel prices are falling? But, as you surely know, at least two American companies—Orbital Sciences and Elon Musk’s SpaceX—will all but certainly have their own for-lease spacecraft flying well before then, and even NASA, which has been inexcusably slow in getting a next generation manned vehicle built, may be back in the game by 2020. In other words, you’re going to quit selling us a service we weren’t planning to use anymore anyway. (According to an e-mail from NASA to TIME, by the way, you’ve not even officially been in touch about your new plans, though you did take the time to let the media know—a little like breaking up over Twitter.)

As for the engines: yes, it’s true that the NK-33 and D-180 are nice bits of hardware and the Atlas does rely on them. But the Atlas pre-dates you, Vlad. Remember John Glenn? He flew on one of them, as did the ICBMs we were building in those days and pointing your way—and you guys weren’t exactly selling us the hardware we needed to take you out. You don’t want the revenue that comes from globalized trade? OK, so we’ll in-source our engines again and keep the cash at home.

Look, Czar Descamisodo, history will decide if your Ukrainian adventure was a winning hand. But the Space Race is over and America won. Even decades after the glory days of the moon landings, it’s still NASA that’s got spacecraft approaching, orbiting or on the surface of Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto and multiple asteroids. Russia? Not so much. The world will have to reckon with you for as long as you choose to misbehave in Europe and anywhere else your eye may wander. But in space? We’re fine without you. Tranquility Base, out.

TIME russia

Russia Takes U.S. Fight Into Space

Putin Visits KBP Instrument Bureau
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin attends a meeting at the KBP Instrument Bureau, a high-precious weapon plant in Tula, 160 km. south of Moscow, on Jan. 20, 2014 Sasha Mordovets—Getty Images

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has threatened to deactivate U.S. Global Positioning Systems on Russian soil, suspend cooperation on the International Space Station and deny U.S. astronauts seats on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft

Moscow threatened to deactivate all U.S. Global Positioning Systems on Russian soil Tuesday as part of an escalating dispute over a satellite infrastructure agreement, as well as threatening to withdraw from agreements on the International Space Station.

Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin lashed out at U.S. negotiators during a Tuesday press conference, calling the U.S. an “unreliable partner” and vowing to retaliate if the U.S. does not allow Russia to install its own GPS systems, known as GLONASS, on U.S. soil, the Moscow Times reports.

He also threatened to suspend Russia’s cooperation on the International Space Station by 2020, suggesting that U.S. astronauts, deprived of seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft, could always reach the space station “using a trampoline.”

The U.S. currently operates 11 GPS stations in Russia, which are used to guide rocket and satellite launches. The threats follow Washington’s move to review whether infrastructure agreements with Russia pose a threat to national security, as the U.S. seeks to distance itself from Russia after its actions in Ukraine.

Rogozin has a history of sending feisty tweets to U.S. officials, most notably to “Comrade @BarackObama” after the U.S. added him to a list of Russian officials sanctioned over the annexation of Crimea in March.

[Moscow Times]

TIME Ukraine

Meet the Cossack ‘Wolves’ Doing Russia’s Dirty Work in Ukraine

The Russian paramilitary group known as the Wolves' Hundred block the road near the checkpoint on the Kharkiv - Rostov-on-Don highway, April 20, near Slavyansk.
The Russian paramilitary group known as the Wolves' Hundred, with their commander Evgeny Ponomaryov in the foreground, block the road near the checkpoint not far from Slavyansk, in eastern Ukraine, April 20, 2014 Maxim Dondyuk

The Wolves' Hundred, a Russian paramilitary force with a dark history, is carrying on the fight in eastern Ukraine in the place of Russian soldiers. TIME interviewed its commander and his men about their motives and links to the Russian state

About a month ago, soon after arriving in eastern Ukraine, a group of Russian paramilitaries known as the Wolves’ Hundred seized an old truck from a local police station and used some spray paint to give it a makeover. They did not remove the blue siren from the roof, as it seemed to lend them an air of authority as they drove around the towns that they control. But on the hood of the black, Russian-made Hunter SUV, they drew their insignia — the snarling head of a wolf in profile.

For weeks, the central government in Kiev, along with its allies in the U.S. and Europe, have been trying to find solid evidence of Russian boots on the ground in eastern Ukraine. They need look no further than the men of the Wolves’ Hundred. In separate interviews with TIME over the past three weeks, four of its heavily armed fighters have admitted that they came from the southern Russian region of Kuban. They are part of the Cossack militias that have been in the service of Russian President Vladimir Putin for almost a decade, and they say they will not go home until they conquer Ukraine or die trying.

Their links to the Russian state are, however, just tenuous enough for Putin to deny having sent them, and these fighters in turn deny being paid, equipped or deployed by the Kremlin. They say they are volunteers driven by the ideals of their Cossack brotherhood — Russian imperialism, service to the sovereign and the heavenly mandate of the Russian Orthodox Church. In the past month, their campaign has revealed a new kind of Russian warfare, one waged through the use of militant nationalist groups acting as proxies. During the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the takeover of Crimea in March, armed Cossack militias served alongside the Russian military. But this appears to be the first time they have gone to fight as more than an auxiliary force.

In eastern Ukraine, the men of the Wolves’ Hundred formed the original core of the militant fighters who took over several towns in April, and they claim to have killed numerous Ukrainian servicemen over the past few weeks. They say they got most of their weapons in April by storming Ukrainian police and security buildings and seizing their arsenals. For reinforcements, they have relied on the vast network of Cossack militias that operate in Russia and have managed to sneak across the border into Ukraine with relative ease.

“For every Cossack they kill, we will kill a hundred of their men,” says one of the militants from the Wolves’ Hundred, who goes by the nickname Vodolaz, or Diver. “We won’t just kill them. We will give their bodies back to their mothers in bags,” he told TIME on May 4 outside their base of operations in the town of Kramatorsk. Just behind him, the commandeered police truck stood parked, its snarling insignia bathed in the afternoon sun.

The commander of the Wolves’ Hundred in eastern Ukraine is a Russian citizen named Evgeny Evgenievich Ponomaryov, who goes by the nickname Batya, meaning Daddy or Papa. For at least two years before he went to fight in Ukraine, Ponomaryov, 38, served as a uniformed officer in the state-sponsored Cossack militias in his hometown of Belorechensk, a bastion of Cossack culture in southern Russia.

But the Wolves’ Hundred was formed, Ponomaryov says, long before Putin incorporated the Cossack militias into the Russian armed forces. “We’ve been around since the 1990s … We got together, organized ourselves, and began going as volunteers wherever there was a threat to Russian Orthodoxy, to Orthodox believers or to the interests of the Russian empire,” Ponomaryov tells TIME in Kramatorsk. “We’ve been at it for almost 20 years, with different men, as part of different military forces, but always as the Wolves’ Hundred.”

The history of this regiment goes back nearly a century. It was founded as a cavalry force in 1915 by Russian Colonel Andrei Shkuro, an ethnic Cossack and native of the region of Kuban. His fighters quickly distinguished themselves during World War I as some of the most ferocious in the Russian imperial army. “It all began with Shkuro,” Ponomaryov says of the original Wolves’ Hundred. “Back then our men would hit the Austrians so hard they would abandon their cannons and run.”

During their service to Czar Nicholas II, the Wolves’ Hundred were easily identifiable by their military banner, which depicted the head of a wolf against a black background. Their traditional Cossack hats, or papakhas, were made out of wolf fur instead of the customary sheepskin, and its fighters would often embellish their Cossack uniforms with the severed tail of a wolf. Most of all, they were known for their distinctive battle cry, which mimicked the howling of wolves in order to intimidate their enemies.

By some accounts, they were notably lacking in discipline. The legendary Russian General Pyotr Vrangel, who was known as the Black Baron for his rank within the nobility and the color of the Cossack uniform he wore, described the original Wolves’ Hundred as a band of marauders. “Barring a few exceptions, the worst elements of the officer corps joined them,” Vrangel wrote in his memoirs. “The detachment of Colonel Shkuro … mostly roamed behind the front lines, getting drunk and pillaging.” Their stomping grounds during World War I were mostly in southern Russia, modern-day Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova.

But they only lasted about five years in their original incarnation. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution led to the outbreak of the Russian Civil War, pitting the czarist forces of the White Army against the communist Red Army. Shkuro, who had by then attained the rank of lieutenant general, helped make the region of Kuban one of the most stubborn holdouts against the communists. But by 1920, the Wolves’ Hundred had been routed and disbanded, and Shkuro fled to Europe along with many czarist officers.

The Cossacks became the targets of mass persecution by Soviet authorities in the decades that followed. Their military units were disbanded as relics of czarism, and their officers were killed and imprisoned by the many thousands. It was only after the collapse of the Soviet Union that they saw a state-sponsored revival. In 2005, Putin signed a law reinstating the Cossack tradition of service in the Russian armed forces. They were given the right to guard the national frontiers and serve alongside the Russian police and military as an official militia force with government paychecks.

Just as in the days of the czars, the command structure of the modern-day Cossacks in Russia now leads directly to Russia’s Commander in Chief, who holds the exclusive right to award the rank of Cossack general. In March, during the Russian invasion of Crimea, thousands of Cossack fighters went with the Kremlin’s approval to aid the Russian military in the occupation of the peninsula. Some of them returned home after Crimea was annexed into Russia, while others moved on to eastern Ukraine to continue their campaign. “We decided to go conquer some more historically Russian lands,” says Alexander Mozhaev, one of the Wolves’ Hundred members now serving in eastern Ukraine.

In total, TIME saw at least a dozen fighters in their group, although the number seemed to fluctuate as new volunteers would arrive in the rebel-held towns of eastern Ukraine. One of them, a baby-faced young fighter who only gave his first name, Vlad, says he was captured in April by the Ukrainian security services and deported back to Russia. “I just made my eyes wide and said I don’t know anything about anything,” Vlad says of his interrogation. Once in Russia, he says he was easily able to sneak back across the border and rejoin his platoon. Mozhaev, whom TIME profiled last month, says he was allowed to pass through Russian border control in March despite being a wanted fugitive in his homeland for making death threats. “There’s an open corridor for the Cossacks, for the Wolves,” says Mozhaev. “They didn’t even stamp my passport.”

All of this points to the complicity, if not also the direct orders, of various branches of the Russian government in the Wolves’ Hundred campaign — from Russian border guards all the way up to the Kremlin Council for Cossack Affairs. But it would be difficult to prove that the Russian government explicitly sent these fighters to wage a war in eastern Ukraine. As an irregular paramilitary outfit, they would not have needed direct orders from the Russian armed forces, let alone the sanction of the Russian parliament, to participate in this conflict.

Still, if the Kremlin disapproved of their actions in Ukraine, it could easily punish them under Russian law. Ponomaryov, for instance, could be kicked out of the Kremlin’s official registry of Cossack militiamen, preventing him from receiving government paychecks for the police duties he has performed in his hometown for years. In November, the Russian parliament also passed a legal amendment against “participating in armed formations on the territory of a foreign state … with aims that run counter to the interests of the Russian Federation.” This amendment was intended to discourage Russian citizens from going to fight in the civil war in Syria, and it allows a prison sentence of 5 to 10 years for a violation of this law. But the actions of the Wolves’ Hundred, an armed formation fighting on the territory of a foreign state, do not seem to run counter to the interests of the Russian Federation.

Their aim, as professed by the fighters themselves, is to destroy the state of Ukraine and absorb most, if not all, of it into Russia. “Write this down: There is no such thing as Ukraine,” says Mozhaev, who goes by the nickname Babay, or Bogeyman. “There are only the Russian borderlands, and the fact they became known as Ukraine after the [Bolshevik] Revolution, well, we intend to correct that mistake.”

Parroting the Kremlin’s propaganda, the men of the Wolves’ Hundred insist that they have come to fight the “fascists” who have taken power in Ukraine. But this claim marks a spectacular irony coming from them, as the founding father of the Wolves’ Hundred, Shkuro, was himself a Nazi collaborator during World War II.

In 1944, the commander of the Nazi SS, Heinrich Himmler, tapped Shkuro — who had become a circus performer and part-time actor during his years in Berlin — to become the head of the Cossack Cavalier Corps within the Nazi Wehrmacht. Shkuro was then given the rank of lieutenant general of the Nazi SS, and he commanded a force of about 2,000 men who fought on the side of the Germans in Yugoslavia. After the war, the British captured Shkuro and sent him to Moscow to stand trial for “acts of terrorism against the U.S.S.R.” and other crimes. His death sentence by hanging was carried out in the Soviet capital in January 1947.

Fifty years later, a Russian monarchist organization called For Faith and the Fatherland petitioned the Russian government to overturn Shkuro’s conviction and clear his name. The Supreme Court refused that petition in 1997, so in the eyes of the Russian state, the founder of the Wolves’ Hundred is still a Nazi war criminal. But in eastern Ukraine, his legacy and the banner he carried now serve the cause of Russian imperialism once again.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,082 other followers